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Graduate Qualifying Paper, Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel, Students

An Exploration of the Irish Holy Wells of St. Brigid

Clare Monardo is an art history graduate student currently completing her qualifying paper on the Irish Holy Wells of St. Brigid. She was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. Clare will present her paper at the Fall 2016 Graduate Student Forum on Dec. 16th.  

This summer I was fortunate to be able to travel around Ireland for three weeks researching the holy wells of St. Brigid in Ireland, which is the topic of my qualifying paper for this program. I have been exploring the St. Brigid’s holy wells for two years now and had hit a wall due to a lack of photographs and site-specific records, prompting this trip.

A sign marks St. Brigid’s Well, Killare, County Westmeath. In order to access the holy well, which is located in a copse of trees, visitors must walk through a field of grazing sheep. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

A sign marks St. Brigid’s Well, Killare, County Westmeath. In order to access the holy well, which is located in a copse of trees, visitors must walk through a field of grazing sheep. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Holy wells are noteworthy settings because, in addition to being semi-man-made places of prayer and contemplation out in nature, many of them are believed to cure physical ailments in addition to spiritual ones. Almost every town in Ireland has at least one holy well, with some counties having upwards of one hundred, for a total of approximately three thousand wells in the country as a whole. The landscape in which holy wells reside shows an amalgamation of pre-Christian and Christian practice and have been enhanced by man-made additions such as signs, well-houses, paved paths, shrines, and the Stations of the Cross.

Stations of the Cross at St. Brigid’s Well in Cullion, County Westmeath. A path allows visitors to circumambulate the well while praying the Stations of the Cross. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Stations of the Cross at St. Brigid’s Well in Cullion, County Westmeath. A path allows visitors to circumambulate the well while praying the Stations of the Cross. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Throughout the course of my research I have come across one hundred holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid in Ireland, not all of which are still in use today. I was able to visit ten of these holy wells while in Ireland, along with local libraries, historical sites, and the Solas Bhríde center in Kildare run by Brigidine nuns. My qualifying paper focuses on four sites, located throughout the country: two wells in Tully, County Kildare; one in Ballysteen, County Clare; one in Faughart, County Louth. These four holy wells were chosen because of their popularity, the fact that they are still venerated today, and because the greatest amount of information regarding the Irish holy wells of St. Brigid focuses on these particular sites. Some of the holy wells that I visited were clearly marked and had road signs pointing the way, making them easy to find. Others, however, were not so obvious, leading to lots of extra driving around (which was already somewhat stressful as it’s on the opposite side of the road from what we’re used to!) and eventually having to ask for directions from locals. These included the St. Brigid’s Well in the Faughart graveyard and another located down the road from Raffony Graveyard.

 A stone beehive hut encloses St. Brigid’s Well in Faughart, County Louth, and there are steep steps going down to the water. To the left of the well are clootie trees. Photograph taken by author on June 12, 2016.

A stone beehive hut encloses St. Brigid’s Well in Faughart, County Louth, and there are steep steps going down to the water. To the left of the well are clootie trees. Photograph taken by author on June 12, 2016.

 

Tucked into a hillside down the road from Raffony Graveyard is St. Brigid’s Well, Raffony, County Cavan. Photograph taken by author on June 10, 2016.

Tucked into a hillside down the road from Raffony Graveyard is St. Brigid’s Well, Raffony, County Cavan. Photograph taken by author on June 10, 2016.

Two holy wells associated with St. Brigid, known as St. Brigid’s Well and St. Brigid’s Wayside Well are located in Tully, County Kildare. Both of these sites are still visited today, but the popularity of the Wayside Well has diminished in recent decades with the renovations of the nearby St. Brigid’s Well.

St. Brigid’s Wayside Well in Tully, County Kildare. Stone steps lead down to the murky and stagnant water, and a small amount of clooties and other items point to this well still being a place of veneration. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

St. Brigid’s Wayside Well in Tully, County Kildare. Stone steps lead down to the murky and stagnant water, and a small amount of clooties and other items point to this well still being a place of veneration. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

Ritual is an integral part of the holy well experience and it can involve not just the holy well, but also sacred trees and stones. Oftentimes trees nearby holy wells have pieces of cloth, called clooties, tied to their branches, marking them as being venerated. When visiting a holy well the afflicted takes a piece of his or her clothing and ties it to the tree with the belief that the disease which is plaguing them will be transferred from their body to the tree.

Located at the back of the axial site is St. Brigid’s Well. To the left of the well is a clootie tree with colorful ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to its branches. Tully, County Kildare. Photograph taken by author on June 1, 2016.

Located at the back of the axial site is St. Brigid’s Well. To the left of the well is a clootie tree with colorful ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to its branches. Tully, County Kildare. Photograph taken by author on June 1, 2016.

 

A small bridge passes over the stream at St. Brigid’s Well in Tully, allowing visitors to access the clootie bush on the right and the statue of St. Brigid on the left. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

A small bridge passes over the stream at St. Brigid’s Well in Tully, allowing visitors to access the clootie bush on the right and the statue of St. Brigid on the left. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

In addition to clooties, it has become quite common for visitors to leave a variety of other objects at holy wells. St. Bridget’s Well in Ballysteen, County Clare had the largest accumulation and assortment of items that I came across during my trip. Not only were there prayer and memorial cards, but also religious statues and images, rosaries, photographs, flowers, religious medals, an empty vodka bottle, a pair of children’s shoes, and a sparkly hula-hoop.

At St. Bridget’s Well, Ballysteen, County Clare, access to the holy water is gained by entering a whitewashed well-house that surrounds the well and proceeding down a dark and narrow passage. Multiple layers of votive offerings have built up inside the well-house. Photograph taken by author on June 8, 2016.

At St. Bridget’s Well, Ballysteen, County Clare, access to the holy water is gained by entering a whitewashed well-house that surrounds the well and proceeding down a dark and narrow passage. Multiple layers of votive offerings have built up inside the well-house. Photograph taken by author on June 8, 2016.

By going on this research trip I not only was able to access local sources that had been unavailable to me previously, but I also gained a better sense of how one is supposed to move through and use the space of holy well sites. Information from both types of visits will help me understand how ritual and space affect and inform one another at the holy wells of St. Brigid in Ireland as I continue to move forward with my qualifying paper.

Graduate Qualifying Paper, Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel

Pictish Stones

Sandy Tomney is an art history graduate student completing her qualifying paper research on the Pictish Stones found within Scotland. She was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. 

Hundreds of carved stones and stone fragments have been found within Scotland’s landscape.  Many of these sculptures are attributed to the peoples known as the Picts who lived in northern Britain during the early historic period.  Art historians and archeologists have been studying these monuments for several hundred years and are still working towards better understanding Pictish art and society.  Recently, on a trip to Scotland, I had the opportunity to examine some of the monuments and their find sites first hand.

St Orland’s Stone is an example of an early historic Pictish monument. (photos by author, 2016)

St Orland’s Stone is an example of an early historic Pictish monument. (photos by author, 2016)

Due to the large number of Pictish stones that have been found, I decided to use iconographical similarities to limit my investigation of the stones.  The ten monuments that were to be examined are carved with quadrupeds that have clawed feet, long legs, long tails, long duck-like noses, large eyes, and profiled bodies.  It just so happened that each of these monuments was originally found near Scotland’s east coast.  Each was discovered south of the Cairngorms and slightly inland from the coastline among agricultural land.  With the exception of the Forteviot Church Stone, each of the other monuments was originally found north of the River Tay.

Example of quadrupeds with clawed feet, long legs, long tails, long duck-like noses, large eyes, and profiled bodies found on Meigle No. 4. (Photo by author, 2016)

Example of quadrupeds with clawed feet, long legs, long tails, long duck-like noses, large eyes, and profiled bodies found on Meigle No. 4. (Photo by author, 2016)

Aberlemno No. 2 still stands in the local kirkyard. During the winter months it is covered with a protective box. (Photos by author, 2016)

Aberlemno No. 2 still stands in the local kirkyard. During the winter months it is covered with a protective box. (Photos by author, 2016)

The monuments have similar iconography, but visiting their find sites revealed a topographical connection between the stones as well. Seven of the find sites visited were near rolling fields of barley and other grains.  This landscape differs greatly from the more mountainous regions to the west and north. The eighth and most northerly Dunfallandy Stone’s find spot was near Killiecrankie along the floodplain of the River Gary.  The River Gary cuts through the southwestern tip of Cairngorm National Park.  Although the area’s landscape is in transition from rolling hills to mountains, similar to the other find spots, much of the land is dedicated to agriculture. Of the stones that were visited, only St. Orland’s Stone found in a field near Forfar and the Aberlemno stones situated along the local road and in the local kirkyard potentially remain in their original find spots.  Most of the monuments have been moved into museums or churches to avoid further deterioration that may be caused by the elements.

The village of Meigle is surrounded by productive agricultural land such as this barley field. (Photo by author, 2016)

The village of Meigle is surrounded by productive agricultural land such as this barley field. (Photo by author, 2016)

The River Gary near the Dunfallandy Stone’s find site. (Photo by author, 2016)

The River Gary near the Dunfallandy Stone’s find site. (Photo by author, 2016)

The trail to the remote St. Orland’s Stone in Angus. ((Photo by author, 2016)

The trail to the remote St. Orland’s Stone in Angus. ((Photo by author, 2016)

Visiting the small museums not only allowed me to view the stones in the study, but also provided a chance to see other Pictish stones. Seeing Strathmartine No. 3 on display at The Meffan Museum and Gallery in Forfar allowed me to better discern details on the stone that photographs just could not capture.  In addition to Strathmartine No. 3, the museum was exhibiting the stones found nearby at Kirriemuir.  About twelve miles from Forfar is the Meigle collection of twenty-six monuments that is housed in an old school house.  The Meigle Museum had on exhibit three of the monuments that were on the list of those to see.   Viewing the monuments allowed for a better understanding of the scale of the stones and how they might function within their original cultural landscape.  Although their collections did not include any of the monuments on my list, I also visited the St. Vigeans Stones and Museum as well as the Museum of Perth.  Both museums are located within the region and the monuments they exhibit may be useful as comparisons.

Strathmartine No. 3 on display at the Meffan Museum and Gallery in Forfar. (Phots by author, 2016)

Strathmartine No. 3 on display at the Meffan Museum and Gallery in Forfar. (Photo by author, 2016)

Originally found just outside of Aberlemno, the Woodrae Castle Stone was one of the stones on the list that was a “must see.”  It is now on display at the National Museum of Scotland, and a trip to the Edinburgh museum provided an opportunity to personally observe the details on the amazing stone.  The museum trip also permitted me to view an array of other Pictish stones, as well as, Celts a major joint exhibition between the National Museums of Britain and Scotland.  Although the museum in the busy city felt like another world after exploring the country side, it was well worth the detour.

The Woodrae Castle Stone at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh. (Photo by Robin Tomney, 2016)

The Woodrae Castle Stone at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh. (Photo by Robin Tomney, 2016)

Overall the trip allowed me to visit the find sites of all ten monuments and actually see eight of the ten stones.  In addition, it was helpful to see other Pictish stones that did not have the same iconography as those in the study.  The field information that was collected was helpful and greatly added to the research I am currently conducting.

Conference Presentations, Faculty, Graduate Student

Presenting at the 2016 SESAH Annual Meeting

Last week Dr. Victoria Young and graduate student Clare Monardo both headed down to New Orleans to present at the 2016 Southeast Chapter Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH) Annual Conference at Tulane University.

Based on her latest manuscript project, Dr. Victoria Young discussed the National World War II Museum designed by Voorsanger Architects. In 2000, founders and historians Stephen Ambrose and Nick Mueller opened the National D-Day Museum in the warehouse district of New Orleans. Within a few years they realized that the D-Day concept paid tribute to only a small portion of the war effort, and with Congressional support in 2003, they led the charge to become our nation’s World War II Museum. Dr. Young’s paper presented the process of creating the campus of the National World War II Museum. From a list of more than forty designers emerged the New York City firm of Voorsanger Architects PC, led by principal and founder Bartholomew Voorsanger. In addition to a discussion on how the firm was selected and their design proposal and how it has evolved over the last decade, Dr. Young spoke about the significance of how the memory of war is displayed through architecture and innovative exhibitions and how, for many, this is a powerful tool for engagement with the life changing events of the wartime experience. This talk further suggested that an architecture of peace is at the core of Voorsanger’s design philosophy, a viewpoint that supports the museum’s missions of education, remembrance and inspiration.

Dr. Young, along with architect Bartholomew Voorsanger, also gave a tour of the museum, providing the group with a comprehensive view of the design process from architectural competition, to the various building phases, to detailing the next stages of construction that will take place before final completion expected in 2019. The various plans, models, etc. from the project will become part of the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive, to be housed on the University of St. Thomas Department of Art History website.

Group gathers before entering Campaigns of Courage (B. Voorsanger in white shirt)

Group gathers before entering Campaigns of Courage

Site of next phase of construction, including the Canopy

Site of next phase of construction, including the Canopy

US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center

US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center

Clare Monardo presented on the sacred landscape and ritual at the Irish Holy Wells of St. Brigid, also the focus of her qualifying paper that she will present during the December 2016 Graduate Student Forum. For her SESAH paper, Clare discussed how ritual and space affect and inform one another at the holy wells of St. Brigid, with particular focus on the site of Faughart, County Louth. Such wells are a unique worship space and remnants from a long ago culture, the pre-Christian Celts. These sites still maintain a place in Irish religion and spirituality today, although in some areas their use is diminished. Ritual is an integral part of any holy well experience and it can involve not just the holy well, but also sacred trees and stones. Traditionally, Christian worship takes place within some type of architectural building, but these holy well sites allow for worship within a sacred landscape; a landscape that has been enhanced by man-made additions such as structures around wells, paved paths, and shrines. The set movements that one performs while moving through the landscape, not unlike ritual movement through a church, are a blend of native and ecclesiastical traditions and recall the elaborate pre-Christian ritual of rounding, or making prescribed circuits around a holy well and other important features of the site. Faughart’s holy well of St. Brigid is a uniquely created space where ritual and worship are informed by, and intertwined with, the surrounding sacred landscape.

Clare will also be presenting another aspect of her research this Saturday, Oct. 8th at the Sacred Space: Art History Graduate Student Research Symposium at St. Thomas.

St. Brigid's Well, Tully, County Kildare. Behind the well is a clootie tree, where pieces of cloth and other offerings have been attached to the tree. Traditionally, the afflicted takes a piece of his or her clothing and ties it to the tree with the belief that the disease which is plaguing them will be transferred from their body to the tree.

St. Brigid’s Well, Tully, County Kildare. Behind the well is a clootie tree, where pieces of cloth and other offerings have been attached to the tree. Traditionally, the afflicted takes a piece of his or her clothing and ties it to the tree with the belief that the disease which is plaguing them will be transferred from their body to the tree.

Today, St. Brigid is usually shown wearing a more modern nun's habit and holding a small model of St. Brigid's Cathedral in Kildare. Image from St. Brigid's Well, Drum, County Roscommon.

Today, St. Brigid is usually shown wearing a more modern nun’s habit and holding a small model of St. Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare. Image from St. Brigid’s Well, Drum, County Roscommon.

St. Brigid's Well, Faughart, County Louth.

St. Brigid’s Well, Faughart, County Louth.

Graduate Student, Uncategorized

Rebuilding, Re-educating, Re-imagining

Dakota Hoska is an art history graduate student and took our summer course, “What is Native American Art,” taught by Dr. Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Assistant Curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Dakota was also a recipient of our Native American Art History Fellowship, made possible with support from the University of St. Thomas College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office. 

 

What drew you to the study of Native American art through a graduate art history course—both personally and professionally?

As a Native person, the image that comes to mind when I reflect upon my cultural existence is that of a large Jenga tower, with many structural components missing. I feel the voids, the emptiness left by those missing pieces. One by one I’m trying to recreate those pieces and slide them back into my tower, knowing I’ll stand stronger if I can reclaim them.

All of my studies, my artwork, my job and my personal energy go into rebuilding what was lost and what was taken.  Courses like the Native American Art History class offered by St. Thomas are building blocks, helping to replace those same missing pieces.

Unfortunately, my story is not unique.  Many Native Americans are missing large parts of their cultural history—including information related to their artistic heritage, because many of their artistic endeavors were closely tied to their traditions and practices. Those traditions and life ways were attacked on multiple fronts.  The stated goal was to obliterate a Native person’s cultural identity and to assimilate them into the culture of the conqueror.

This class and others like it are important on a personal and professional level for Native students like myself, but also for Non-native students.  They help to build appreciation and equanimity for the beautifully rich cultural and artistic histories of Native Americans, while schooling Euro-Americans on alternative modalities and motivations for making. Additionally, they bring awareness to beautiful works of historic art that were almost lost, while showcasing progressive Native artists who rely on a broad array of influences—traditional, European, political, familial—to produce works unlike others known in the Western canon.

What research project did you pursue and why do you think this research is important?

For my research project, I chose to delve into the career of one of the most prolific, political and popular Native American Art figures of our time—Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. I was interested in her because within the artistic world, she was hit with a double “handicap”:  She is Native and she’s a woman.

The Red Mean, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation, 1992, Acrylic, Newspaper collage, Shellac and Mixed Media on Canvas, 90 X 60 in., Smith College Museum of Art

The Red Mean, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation, 1992, Acrylic, Newspaper collage, Shellac and Mixed Media on Canvas, 90 X 60 in., Smith College Museum of Art

I was inspired by Jaune’s steady commitment to her artistic calling as well as to her Native community. I learned a great deal in my research about Jaune’s choice to continually engage her audience in important dialogues around the issues of being Native, of being a woman in a male-centric field, and of being a committed environmentalist.  I came to respect her deeply as a person of great strength and character, who continually chose her path, when others tried to tell her she had no choice.

Because of the research I completed on this artist, I was able to advocate for greater representation of her artwork in an upcoming exhibition I am assisting with. (I work as a research assistant at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.) I have also been inspired, within my own artistic process, to utilize more printmaking and collage in my work. Finally, throughout her career Jaune never forgot her ties to her community.  The struggle between the Western world and our own cultural heritage is real and Native artists deal with this struggle in a spectrum of ways, from creating work that is completely culturally embedded to striving for only Western recognition in their careers.  I respect the balance Jaune found on that spectrum.

3) How will this course continue to have an impact on you moving forward? 

For me, this course will be one of the most important I will take at St. Thomas as I strive to focus my Art History studies on Native American Art History.  I wish I had many more courses along these lines to choose from. Unfortunately, these classes can be few and far between in all institutions of higher learning, which gives me an even deeper appreciation for the importance of this class. I’m always thankful when I find something that so directly relates to my future aspirations.

The House of Little Moon, Dakota Hoska, 2015, Monoprint, 19.5 X 24 This work discusses my journey back to my birth family, the Little Moons.

The House of Little Moon, Dakota Hoska, 2015, Monoprint, 19.5 X 24
This work discusses my journey back to my birth family, the Little Moons.

Archive, Graduate Student

Establishing the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive

The preservation of artistic and architectural legacies through the creation of physical and digital archives is of great significance to the future of art history. The Department of Art History is pleased to have reached an agreement to sustain the field of architectural history with the creation of an archive of the work of Voorsanger Architects PC of New York City. (www.voorsangerarchitects.com). Under the leadership of visual resources curator Christine Dent and faculty member and architectural historian Dr. Victoria Young, graduate students will be involved in the creation process of the archive from the ground up. Our first graduate student assistant for the project, Hanna August-Stoehr, documents her role in the earliest phases of the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive.

VADA CDM banner laye#46B311

I began my work on the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive as a newly minted graduate student in the University of St. Thomas Art History program. During my interview with Christine Dent, Visual Resources Curator, I received an introduction to the project and my duties. I would organize and digitize the collection, finally entering the materials into the Art History database, Qi, and ContentDM. The ultimate goal was to allow interested art and architectural historians easy access to architectural planning materials, diagrams, drawings, and renderings. As I looked through books, familiarized myself with projects, and took about a whole notebook’s worth of notes on my first day on the job, I learned that Bartholomew Voorsanger’s architectural designs capitalized not just on the client’s design requirements, but on their close connection to natural materials and forms. The more I learned, the more enthusiastic I became about the part I was going to play in these preservation efforts.

Contrary to my initial impressions, I would not immediately become a slave to the scanner. Before any digitization of the massive collection could happen, an accurate inventory of the archival materials was required. Architectural Historian, Dr. Victoria Young, had received an alarming number of boxes from Voorsanger’s New York office. I began my work by organizing the materials from an ongoing Voorsanger Architects project, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. As my parents had just returned from a trip to New Orleans that had included a visit to that same museum (they thought it fantastic), I was very interested in learning about the background of the architectural design choices.

National World War II Museum, New Orleans, LA (2010)

National World War II Museum, New Orleans, LA (2010)

 

I began by organizing everything by date, assessing the contents of each three-ring binder and folder, and then I described it all in a very detailed notebook, which I would later spend a good several hours transferring to Microsoft Word. My dedication to the project became fully certified after I spent an afternoon reading a full report on the varying qualities of a specific type of cement chosen for the foundation of the National WWII Museum. After weeks of organizing collections, I finally started digitizing.

Asia Society and Museum, New York

Asia Society and Museum, New York

 

It started with some really dirty slides of the Asia Society, located in New York City. I cleaned the slides up, popped them into the scanner, and dug back into my memory to remember how to scan! After this long process, Christy (who is very patient!) talked me through the delicate process of entering these scans into the digital archive. I learned Library of Congress name and title headings, what tags to capitalize, what to leave in lowercase, and which lists needed to be separated by semi-colons, and which by commas.

 

Finally, after learning all this, I was asked to assist in a graduate student digital archiving workshop. Fortunately, I was in charge of teaching students how to scan and do minor image touch-ups, and not showing them how to enter data into the archive. I had a great time meeting my St. Thomas colleagues and showing them a few Photoshop tricks.

Several weeks later, Bartholomew Voorsanger came to visit. In one exhaustive afternoon, we walked him through our databases, showed him our sorting systems, and prioritized which projects would be uploaded in the next few weeks. After a long conference call with his New York office, we went out to lunch. Though only a few steps in the long process of archival digitization had been completed, each played a vital role in the development of the next. As I look back on my small part, I am grateful for the opportunities that working on the Voorsanger Architects Digital Archive provided me. This April I am headed to New York City…and my itinerary is already full of visits to Voorsanger Architects designed buildings.

 

Graduate Student, Presentations, Research, Students

Art and Contemplation Graduate Student Research Symposium

By Sam Wisneski, graduate student

After months of planning and preparation, the sixth annual University of St. Thomas graduate student research symposium went off without a hitch. Wearing the hat of both presenter and symposium co-chair, I had some jitters and excitement about both my paper and the symposium overall, and how it would reflect on the Department of Art History. I’ve always been impressed with the collegiality and the warm, welcoming atmosphere of our department, and I truly think we showcase those qualities best in settings like the annual symposium – and this year was no different.

The symposium kicked off with a keynote lecture about Pieter Bruegel’s Resurrection from Dr. Walter Melion of the Emory University Department of Art History. In the words of Dr. Craig Eliason, the lecture was a “thrill ride.” Who said art history can’t be an adrenaline rush? If you missed the keynote or you enjoyed it as much as Craig, you can (re-)watch it here.

The evening continued with a reception where graduate student presenters, professors and UST graduate students got a chance to mingle and enjoy a spread of some of the very best offerings – I quite enjoy those little caprese kabobs, though they are a little awkward to eat and the dessert bars, oh my!

Saturday started bright and early, with the presenters arriving at 7:45 a.m. and the first paper presented at 8:30 a.m. to a full house. The rest of the day went very smoothly. From the morning sessions, to the gallery talk in the American Museum of Asmat Art gallery, to the afternoon sessions, I think we showed off the very best of the Department of Art History at St. Thomas. The student presenters were incredibly professional and gave some wonderful presentations. As symposium co-chair, this wasn’t all that surprising based on the many excellent abstracts we received following the Call for Papers – but a strong abstract doesn’t guarantee a great presentation. This time around, it was the case that both the abstracts and the presentations were quite strong. Not only that, the range and breadth of topics was impressive too. This year’s paper titles can be found here.

2015 Symposium Presenters with Dr. Walter Melion

2015 Symposium Presenters with Dr. Walter Melion

Following each presentation, our audience, packed into Room 341, offered some insightful questions to our presenters. As usual, it was a warm atmosphere for collegial banter – both literally and figuratively; the room was smaller than past symposium locations so it was a little toasty at times. My fellow graduate student presenters handled their questions graciously and with enthusiasm.

The absolute highlight and nightmare scenario for me though, was the feedback offered by our keynote lecturer. Dr. Melion carefully read the presenters’ papers and crafted several incisive questions for each of us – some even down to the granular level of semantics. He then called upon us to respond to each question. Easier said than done. We all furiously scribbled and captured mere portions of each of his questions.

Sam presenting her paper

Sam presenting her paper, ‘Soul Food as Sacrament: Social Practice Artist Meditations on Nourishment’

I felt a bit like I was on an episode of the Food Network series Chopped. I had served up my paper to the judges, and now I was ready to be grilled. Publicly defending your work is a delicate task – especially when scholarship can be so personal. You’ve spent lots of time with your topic, and even the slightest criticism can sting. You have to achieve a balance somewhere between defensiveness and concession – standing up for your paper but acknowledging that your scholarship is never really done.

Though difficult, opportunities to present and defend your work are formative. As scholars, we aren’t producing work in a vacuum, so outside insights are critical and I very much valued the thoughtful responses Dr. Melion provided for each of us. I think my fellow graduate student presenters, overall, felt the same way. In hearing feedback from presenters, I think we achieved both a welcoming and critical environment to consider this year’s symposium theme, Art and Contemplation.

I’d like to offer a special thanks to everyone who made this year’s symposium a success – while it didn’t quite take a village, it certainly took lots of support from our department as a whole: graduate student volunteers, the faculty co-chairs, Dr. Heather Shirey and Dr. Craig Eliason, and my co-chair Dakota Passariello, as well as the generous support of those in attendance. Thank you!

 

Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel, Students

Uncovering Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore

Alex Kermes is an art history graduate student completing his qualifying paper on the 19th century painter, Joshua Johnson. He was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. Alex will be presenting his qualifying paper research at the Art History Graduate Forum on December 18.

Joshua Johnson, the topic of study for my Qualifying Paper, is an enigmatic figure since so much of his life is unknown. Few details have trickled down from decades of scholarship on Johnson, who is considered the first African American portraitist in the U.S. I experienced this enigma firsthand while conducting research on him, and felt the department’s travel grant would help me uncover a great deal more.

Johnson lived and worked in Baltimore, actively painting portraits of middle and upper class clientele from the late-1790s to mid-1820s. Although he owed much to the influence of painters around him, he devised a style all his own. His paintings are characterized by thin layering of oil paint, minimal shading on his subjects (often children), and frequent use of props.

The third largest city in the U.S. during this period, Baltimore had an active African American population, both slave and free. Citizens interacted with a diverse population, and my research has focused on how Johnson responded to such diversity – in spite of the limited sources. The travel grant helped me understand Johnson as a person, living and working as an artisan in a time defined by slave and free status.

The reality of slavery sunk in while I dug deep into the sources in the Maryland Historical Society’s (MHS) library archives. While there, I read a manifest from the 1780s containing all sorts of transactions in Baltimore, including the legal documentation that set Johnson free from slavery. On one hand, it was an important record to look at closely as it assigned the conditions for which Johnson would become free, while on the other hand, these same pages contained transactions for horses, livestock, and ships in the harbor. This provided a disheartening reminder about a significant segment of America’s history.

Still, the MHS provided me with a wealth of details that helped me piece together a personal history of Johnson’s life. I looked at newspaper advertisements of other artisans and city directories that listed Johnson’s various residences throughout his life in the 1800s.

As an art historian, it was important that I see his work in person and up close, and there are far more of his paintings in Baltimore than the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. The Maryland Historical Society is home to a few, though they have a strict photography policy, and other can be found at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I spent time at both to examine Johnson’s works, and simply because both are quite fabulous museums.

While drafting the prospectus for my qualifying paper, one of the major comments I received stressed the importance of bringing his works forward in my discussion. My focus had drifted too far into Johnson’s context that his actual paintings took on a seemingly secondary role. Studying his works in person changed that remarkably. The subtle ways he handled his paint differ throughout the periods of his career, making it possible to identify a Johnson work from 1804 versus one from 1814. This spoke a great deal to me about the work he received during this period and how he was able to hone his craft.

Joshua Johnson, James McCormick Family, 1804-5, 50 x 69 in., Maryland Historical Society, oil on canvas (left); Joshua Johnson, Rebecca Myring Everette and her children, 1818, 55 x 58 in., Maryland Historical Society, oil on canvas (right)

Of course, Baltimore is culturally and historically significant, which meant on my free evenings (the MHS is open only until 5:00), I saw the U.S.S. Constellation parked in the harbor, poked my head in the Walters Art Museum which was located next to the MHS, and wandered the Baltimore Museum of Art’s galleries.

I certainly could have completed my Qualifying Paper without this research travel grant. Yet, studying Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore in person has given me tremendous insight into his life and what his career in painting was all about. Walking along High Street, close to the harbor, I could almost sense where Johnson might have lived and worked in the first decade of the 19th century. I truly built a personal connection to Johnson and his work by studying him on my Baltimore trip, and it increased my quality of research. My Qualifying Paper has already greatly benefited from every additional page of notes I took while in the archives and viewing his paintings and digging through the Maryland Historical Society’s archives – progress that I could not have made without the travel grant. Visiting Baltimore has made him much less the enigma he was when I began my research.